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Croydon Board Pleads School Choice Issue Before Judge



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2016
Newport — Attorneys on both sides of a prominent school choice dispute laid out their arguments Wednesday afternoon in Sullivan County Superior Court, where the New Hampshire Department of Education is seeking a permanent injunction to stop the Croydon School Board from paying private-school tuition with public money.

Judge Brian Tucker made no decision at the three-hour hearing, which was packed with more than 30 attendees — including some from the libertarian Free State Project, of which the School Board’s chairwoman is a participant. Both parties’ lawyers predicted that a ruling would take one to three months to arrive and almost certainly would be appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

This school year, four students from Croydon are attending the private Newport Montessori School on taxpayers’ dime, which state officials say is prohibited. Two of those students are the children of sitting board member Angi Beaulieu, and a third is her nephew.

Beaulieu took the stand on Wednesday and, in a sharp confrontation during cross-examination from the state, defended her decision to place her children in private school while serving on the board.

After asking whether the board had followed any specific policy in deciding where to place Beaulieu’s children — the answer was “no” — state Department of Education attorney Erin McIntyre asked, “so you, as a parent and a school board member, decided to send your child to a private school and use public funds to pay for that?”

“Absolutely,” Beaulieu said. “I know my child best.”

In earlier questioning from Croydon’s attorneys, Beaulieu said her own children’s education in Newport public schools had been unsustainable. Her then 10-year-old daughter, she said, had suffered from emotional difficulties, cried every day before going to school and failed classes.

“I really feel that my daughter was depressed at Newport public schools,” Beaulieu said. “At the age of 10, I had a depressed child on my hands.”

Now, at the Montessori School, her children’s performance is vastly improved, she said, and they “love” going to school.

Another defense witness, Beaulieu’s sister Amie Freak, testified that she had sent her son to the Montessori School for fear that he would not fit in at public school. Freak said she herself is homosexual and her son is biracial, factors that she thought would lead to his being bullied.

Freak said her prediction for her son was based on her own experience in area public schools; on cross-examination, McIntyre confirmed with Freak that her child had never attended Newport’s public schools.

Croydon is hinging a good part of its defense on the wording of a state statute covering hardship transfers of students. The law in question, New Hampshire RSA 193:3, says that “(e)ach school district shall establish a policy, consistent with the state board’s rules, which shall allow a school board, with the recommendation of the superintendent, to take appropriate action including, but not limited to, assignment to a public school in another district when manifest educational hardship is shown.”

The defense contends the phrase “but not limited to” gives Croydon leeway to pick the Montessori School.

“That is simply an incorrect interpretation of the law,” Assistant Attorney General Anne Edwards said of Croydon’s reasoning in her opening remarks.

A few minutes later, Tucker, the judge, provoked a few chuckles among Croydon supporters in the gallery when he asked Edwards, “And what would the words ‘not limited to’ be referring to?”

Edwards pointed to rules laid out by the state Board of Education that allowed students facing hardship to transfer between public schools, and argued that, in context, the law and accompanying regulations are intended to allow attendance only at public schools or other institutions approved by the state.

“This is not an isolated incident ... this is a policy issue,” Edwards later said. She predicted the case could set a precedent, and said that other school systems had been asking the state whether they also could pay private tuition with tax dollars. “Croydon also needs to be told that it cannot do this any longer.”

The state called only one witness, SAU 43 Superintendent Cindy Gallagher. Among others, the defense called Croydon School Board Chairwoman Jody Underwood; Newport Montessori Head of School Christy Whipple; and Deborah Wesoja, a Croydon parent who sent her child to Kimball Union Academy last school year, when school choice took effect in town.

Meanwhile, a bill in the Legislature could resolve future school choice fights over the ambiguity in the law’s wording. The legislation, whose sponsors include a handful of Sullivan County state representatives, would allow students in districts without public schools for their grade to attend private school elsewhere.

“If there is no public school for the child’s grade in the resident district,” reads the proposed addition to statute 193:1 , “the district may assign the child to another public school in another school district or to a non-religious private school which has been approved by the Department of Education.”

Last week, a majority of the House Education Committee voted that the bil “ought to pass” with minor amendments.

News outlets across the state have been covering Croydon’s school choice dispute and, as became apparent at the hearing, even some national attention is being focused on the 760-resident town.

Leslie Hiner, vice president of programs and state relations at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an Indiana-based nonprofit founded by economist Milton Friedman that promotes school choice, came to court Wednesday and expressed support for Croydon.

Hiner said her organization often involves itself in high-profile education cases and would be willing to provide information and legal aid to the embattled School Board.

“Yes, we’ll absolutely step up and help,” she said, “if and when it becomes necessary.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.




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